With renewed promises of revitalizing Middle East peace negotiations, US envoy George Mitchell is due in Beirut today – the first stop of his inaugural 2010 regional tour. But a key ally in his efforts, Egypt, has gotten off to a bad start in the New Year, further complicating American interests.
The US has long hoped that Egypt would prove a key intermediary in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace. But Egypt has a poor relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza strip, and its recent effort to beef up its border fence with Gaza has backed Hamas into a corner and inflamed wider Palestinian anger against Egypt.
As a consequence, many Palestinians see Egypt as an ally of the US and Israel. The country's ability to act as an honest broker has been weakened as a consequence.
The problem is that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and powerful opposition movement. The regime of President Hosni Mubarak has been almost as eager as Israel for the Islamist movement to fail in Gaza, for fear it could encourage more Egyptians to support the brothers. But Egypt remains eager to hang on to its role as a perceived potential peace-maker since that inflates its importance to the US, which provides it with $2 billion in aid each year.
“The only paper or card which the Egyptian foreign [policymakers] can take to Americans and say that we are very important in any process in the region is the ‘Palestinian card’.... It’s the only card with which we can play,” says Emad Gad at the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank funded by the Egyptian government .
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says that Egypt has more directly thrown its lot in with Washington in recent years, particularly in its efforts to weaken Hamas.
“The way it’s seen is that Egypt has renounced its traditional leadership role in the region.... Egypt now serves the ‘interests’ of Washington and Jerusalem,” says Professor Gerges. “This is Egypt’s predicament: the more it appeals to Washington [and] the more it improves its (political) capital, the graver the threat to its regional leadership in the Middle East.”
Gerges thinks that in openly threatening Hamas, the Egyptian regime has calculated a strategic trade-off: Less regional popularity but a greater likelihood that Washington will approve of Egypt's next leader. President Mubarak, now 81, has yet to name a political successor but is grooming his son Gamal to replace him.
“The leadership believes that the only way the political transition will succeed is by getting Washington’s consent,” Gerges says.
Shutting down Hamas
In the first few weeks of the New Year, simmering hostilities between Hamas and Egypt have already boiled over – chiefly over a new wall on Gaza’s border that’s seen as part of Israel’s effort to seal off the coastal territory.
“For Hamas this is not just about a political game, it’s about an ideological, political, and theological existence and Hamas will basically do everything in its power to resist any kind of dictate by Egypt and the United States,” says Gerges. As a result, he sees 2010 as a year for escalation of tensions in the region.
Egypt began construction last month on the subterranean wall at its border with Gaza. Its aim is to cut off the network of smuggling tunnels that provide an economic lifeline for the territory as well as arms for Hamas.
“Egypt’s fear is that they don’t want to have hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza coming into Sinai and staying there in a semi-permanent capacity.... They need to manage Gaza so that it does not become a national security nightmare,” says Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Egypt’s attempt to shut down what is virtually Gaza’s only remaining conduit to the outside world under an Israeli blockade provoked a backlash from Hamas.
On Jan. 6, violent clashes at the border left one Egyptian guard dead and four Palestinians wounded, as Hamas led hundreds of Palestinians in protest of the wall and the Egyptian enforcement of the Israeli-led blockade of the territory.
Some analysts say that pressure from the threat of the wall has caused the usually defiant group to realize it needs Egypt as it battles for economic and political survival. But it’s unclear whether this will cause Hamas to take seriously Egypt’s effort to reconcile the Islamist group with its rival Fatah – paving the way for a stronger Palestinian front in Middle East peace talks.
“Hamas does not have many options,” says Prof. Gerges. “Hamas is in a very, very difficult position. Hamas survival is on the line now because the pressure is coming... if Egypt succeeds in building this wall, Hamas is dead.”
On Jan. 15, usually antagonistic rhetoric from Hamas leadership became conciliatory, which may signal a changing attitude.
“From this platform, I erase all the past, and I invite the brother Abu Mazen [Abbas] for a bilateral meeting to start with, then with the factions,” said Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal at a conference for resistance groups in Beirut, according to Reuters. “I am confident that when we meet, we will agree, and we will deal with these simple differences. Then we will go to Cairo, with an Arab presence, to bless our unity and our agreement.”
In Egypt, that’s being interpreted as a sign Hamas will capitulate on reconciliation talks.
“The issue here is after what Egypt is doing now at the border, is Hamas under pressure of being forced to sign the Egyptian document concerning reconciliation? The answer is yes,” says Gad at Al-Ahram. “Regardless of if Hamas can trust in Egypt or not, the question here is if Hamas has any other alternatives. The answer is no.”
Hamas has good reason to suspect its neighbor. Egypt has had strong ties with its rival, the secular Fatah party headquartered in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But Hamas needs Egypt in order to get to the negotiating table, since both Israel and the United States do not have diplomatic relations with the group, which they label a terrorist organization.
Egypt, meanwhile, views Hamas as a dangerous offshoot of its biggest political threat at home, the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
“We should not underestimate how anxious the Egyptian leadership feels vis-à-vis Gaza and Hamas. Hamas is not seen as Palestinian faction, Hamas is seen as part of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s this monstrous stress on its border,” says Gerges.